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Jacques Federé: Switzerland’s worst soldier
Looking back now, wallowing in the frustration and inadequacy of old age, I can safely say that little has ever made me feel more alive than my long weekend in Paris back in 1789…
Our lieutenant at the time – Deflue – was one of the most imbecilic specimens of man in human history, and as he struggled through the half-page summary of our duties his furrowed brow and silently moving lips suddenly transformed into a ruddy combination of excitement and bloodlust. A flabby puce tongue traced along his cracked upper lip in anticipation. A couple of cries of “Let’s go save the poncey sod” later, and we were Paris-bound.
It was mid-July, if I recall correctly, and we had arrived under orders from the colonel Rodolphe Salis-Salade himself. King Louis XVI had got himself a little hot under the ruff after recent whispers of peasant revolt in the capital, and felt he needed a little reinforcement. I personally don’t blame the poor inhabitants of Paris for contemplating rebellion; they were faced with a rising tide of famine and squalor, whilst all those who spoke out against the Ancien Regime would be whisked off to some dank dungeon in the middle of nowhere at the drop of a hat. It was indeed a time of great unrest, and I had no wish to be dropped in the middle of it, especially if I was expected to fight these starving revolutionaries.
Now you may think this to be a slightly odd thing for a soldier to be saying, but believe you me, I was the worst soldier in the history of Switzerland. I was never much of a ‘hands-on’ sort of fellow, much more inclined to a Rousseau than a loaded rifle, but I was savvy enough to realise that a 22 year old couldn’t spend the rest of his life writing without another source of income. Switzerland’s never been renowned for its bloody warfare, so becoming a private was supposed to be a well-paid and pretty easy source of income. And I loved the uniform.
We were to be stationed in the largest prison in France, the Bastille. This caused confusion amongst some of the sharper members of the regiment – the Salis-Salade, if you were wondering – as a pathetic seven prisoners were rattling around the bloody great castle at the time. This, twinned with the fact that the convicts comprised of four forgers, a couple of lunatics and a naughty noble led us to believe that our 32 men was a bit overkill, and raised the question of why such an uninteresting lot, to both angry peasant and unwilling soldier alike, needed guarding at a ratio of over four to one!
Despite these queries, we found ourselves in the rare position where Deflue apparently knew something that we did not, for our quizzical glances were met with a stern, glazed stare of determination. This did little to comfort me as I began to empty my backpack, which, along with the usual effects of an infantryman, contained a copy of Voltaire’s Zadig – a personal favourite of mine.
The Bastille is a perfect example of the ugly, yet awe-inspiring architecture of 16th century; a towering mass of rock in a roughly oblong shape. It is quite deceptive however, for despite its imposing exterior it is virtually hollow. Our regiment passed through the gate, over the vast drawbridge and marched into the courtyard within, where we were to be greeted by the governor: the Marquis de Launay.
He was in stark contrast to Deflue; the latter being grubby, chubby and of a reddish hue, whilst de Launay was a well-dressed, strapping character with a finely chiselled jaw. He turned on the men and addressed us with a voice steeped in the pomposity of the French aristocracy that instantly made all of us stiffen in resentment.
“I do not know why you are here, or why our beloved king seems to think you are needed at all, but whilst you stand in the hallowed grounds of the great Bastille, you will do as I say, when I say it, without question. Understand?”
We all muttered similarly unconvincing agreements, whilst Deflue stood face to face with our new boss and screeched “Oui monsieur!”
De Launay afforded himself a smirk as he casually brushed the lieutenant’s spittle from his well-shaven cheek, and replied: “Get to work then.”
For a week or so we busied ourselves supposedly fortifying the castle, but really just spent our time befriending the permanent guard, the invalides – wizened ex-soldiers who spent most of their time drinking and joking. One such guard was the middle-aged, quick-witted Jacques Ferdinand, who would spend half the time attacking the despotism of Louis’ regime with a unique combination of brutal honesty and Enlightened politics, and the other half of the time he would spend drunkenly boasting of the beauty of his wife and two teenage sons.
“Oh Louis, you allow me not to breathe so freely as I know all men should, yet you refuse to return the favour and allow me to wind a noose round your precious pencil neck.” he would mutter under his breath, as de Launay passed out of earshot.
On the Thursday, six days into our time at the Bastille, he arrived looking pale and uneasy – at first he rebuffed our concerned questions, but soon snapped.
“My friends, this fool de Launay seems to think we must face a mere hundred aggravated peasants, armed with rocks and foul words! Yet in the city there is talk of thousands, armed with rifles and cannons!”
The foolish laughed this off. Deflue especially, and as soon as de Launay got hold of Ferdinand’s warning he addressed us all, denouncing such rumours as “fickle fantasies of a people so stupid, they couldn’t organise a farmyard, let alone a full-scale siege...”
The morning after I awoke surrounded by empty beds, most not even disturbed, as their former inhabitants had fled once all the Swiss had retired for the night. Only de Launay, me and the rest of the Salis-Salade remained. Amidst the confusion, de Launay could be heard screaming at the soldiers to take up their posts on the wall. Suddenly my 31 cheery comrades became bewildered and terrified men, and I was one of them.
By three o’clock, one thousand armed revolutionaries marched on a lacklustrely fortified Bastille. De Launay’s face fell.